Grumpy sense of self reliance

The Good Oil by Rod Brown*

On 18 March there was a Matter of Public Importance debated in the House of Representatives. The topic was Regional Australia, and the discussion ranged over hill and dale. Gary Gray (the relevant Parliamentary Secretary) said that “the spark of energy and the life that is created in good regional centres comes down so often to a grumpy sense of self reliance that healthy communities have. Take a township like Merredin, with its pride in its public gardens and its swimming pools…”, and so it went.

It has now dawned on me that ‘grumpy self reliance’ is the Feds’ strategy on regional development!

The Area Consultative Committee system has been wound down over the last 18 months, the Regional Development Program has been closed, and the Feds pulled out of regional investment attraction five years ago.

Although the new dawn begins on 1 July with the new RDA machinery, my grumpy contacts say there will be minimal regional funding thanks to the $42 billion GFC (global financial crisis) package and $3.3 billion being spent on roof insulation. More grumpy self reliance.

Dealing with Canberra – more tips

Last month we featured the first six of our top 10 tips on how Local Government can improve its outcomes with the Federal Government.

To recap the first six: decide your priorities; be clear and focused; look at things from the Feds’ perspective; make it sexy and use champions; address the program criteria; be selective.

Here are numbers 7 and 8.

No. 7 – Think partnerships

My US colleague, Erik Pages (, says local councils need to approach politicians more like a partner. The same is the case in Australia. Councils here obviously have regular contact with their local Federal member, and get involved when a Federal Minister drops in for a chat, but this is not longterm partnering.

Becoming a partner involves regular, targeted interaction with certain Ministers, MPs and their staffers, inviting them to meetings, asking them to tour and speak at your venues, and taking some ownership. 

If they don’t respond, make it known that you’re not happy. And get your Senators involved too – there are 10 per State, so there will be two or three whose interests coincide with yours. Senators are also less pressed for time than MHRs.

Effective partnering requires that your organisation provide something of value. As Erik Pages suggests, economic developers have two things of value to politicians : access to constituents and access to information. So you might convene regular meetings between local businesses and Federal politicians, and run regular mini polls of your businesses or civic leaders.

Thanks to web survey tools like Survey Monkey and Zoomerang, it’s easy and inexpensive to set up surveys on topical Federal policies or initiatives.

Another possibility is a State of Region report. These are ways to brand your organisation, win attention in Canberra and consolidate those partnerships.

No. 8 – Reduce the risks

Federal and State Governments are risk averse. The Westminster system is built around an Opposition being there to oppose, criticise and embarrass the incumbents. Just because you think it’s a great idea, don’t assume government agencies will automatically agree. But they will generally come on board once the risks are seen to be covered.

This is nicely explained by a colleague in Far North Queensland. “We have found if the project is sexy they come asking to help. We did not have any credibility at first and had a few closed doors (still do). But once there were runs on the board, and outcomes and contracts were changing hands, we were inundated with enthusiastic help from State and Federal agencies. Build relationships first around trust and genuine friendship, get business to business meetings, and throw out the bait for government to engage.”

Stormwater grants

Are you in a city or sizeable town? Are your parks, gardens, ovals and golf courses in a seriously bad state? Or are you spending large sums on potable water to keep them decent?

Then pay attention. Thanks to Nick Xenophon, the Rudd Government has just announced a Stormwater Harvesting and Reuse Program – $200 million over two rounds – minimum $4 million expenditure per project – 50 per cent needs to come from non Federal sources.

Merit criteria is tricky. Contact us to prepare a submission on your behalf.

Future Federal directions

The May Budget will be a curate’s egg. Health and social support initiatives are expected to come to the fore – former deputy PM Brian Howe is pushing to address the appalling treatment of the disabled and their carers. He surely has the ear of his former advisers – Jenny Macklin (now Minister for FAHCSIA) and Jeff Harmer (Secretary of FAHCSIA).

Elsewhere, manufacturing support and innovation funding is now very uncertain. Infrastructure funding was mostly handled last year. Agriculture, environmental and water funding is also cut and dried (literally).

*Rod Brown is a Canberra-based consultant specialising in industry/regional development, investment attraction, clusters and accessing Federal grants. He can be contacted at or phone (02) 6231 7261. Go to our blog at for 400+ articles on issues relevant to Local Government.